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Welcome Days at our college is always an exciting day when high school students from around the country spend a few days with us to get a taste of what they might expect if they join us as students. There are many special activities, music, games and events that make for a great time for all! Prospective students even get to spend the night in the dorm rooms with current students.
One of the events of Welcome Days is when our College Choir sings in a worship service on Friday night. We had just come back from a successful choir tour and were excited about singing before all the visitors on our campus in an energized, yet relaxed setting. Our morning chapel service was packed with students, faculty, parents, and chaperones in an electric atmosphere. The events were promising to build over the weekend.
Shortly after the morning chapel service, I was informed that one of my College Choir members, Zach Yoho, had been found dead in his dorm room and had evidently died suddenly of natural causes associated with a pre-existing illness. The shock of this cannot be overstated. Our school, which is a small family community of believers committed to academic excellence, instantly became a group of weeping relatives that grieved the loss of a loved one, at a time when we had over a hundred visitors in our home.
Zach was one of the finest examples of a Christian young man that I have known. He was excited about his walk with the Lord, was always surrounded by friends who gravitated to his ready smile, and he was looking forward to a future of service to God. He will be missed greatly!
When we heard the news, decisions had to be made about whether the Choir would perform in the evening service or whether we would even have services at all. We were also scheduled to sing two days later on Sunday. A decision was made that we would go ahead and sing in a modified service that deleted a couple of numbers which provided a little comic relief in normal times.
Before we sang that night, Neil Gilliland, a counselor from our national office spoke to our choir. I’ll never forget him saying the words, “Tonight, this will be the worst singing and the best singing you have ever done.” He was right. The choir sang from a spirit of brokenness, but with a deep sincerity of faith.
All of a sudden the words to our songs that we had somehow glossed over became very real and close such as in an arrangement of “Because He Lives” when we got to the words:
“And then one day I’ll cross that river and fight life’s final war with pain.”
Zach’s sudden passing was also a great reminder that the only time we really have to serve God is right now. We can’t live in the past or future. If we want to do something great for God, the present is the only moment we truly have to do so.
In a previous article entitled, “When the Music Stops,” I stated:
“When Christians sing songs of worship to God in the midst of disappointments, they are singing with a faith that says despite circumstances, God is still in control and worthy of praise and adoration, with a faith that recognizes that despite any defeats along the way, ultimate victory is without question.”
The performances that weekend were two of the hardest I have ever had to do and I’m sure that this was just as difficult, and more so, for the members of our choir. As we were singing, I looked into the eyes of each member of the choir, who were some of Zach’s best friends, and could see the gut wrenching hurt in their faces. And there was a missing spot and smile on the third row.
However, I’ve never been so proud of a group before! They sang from their hearts with each lyric newly imbued with meaning and devotion. Most importantly, God met us in our grief and provided a sweet comfort, love, and presence that could only come from His Spirit. Yes, truly this was the “worst and the best music that we ever sang,” but it was probably the most pure and honoring to God.
Thanks, Zach, for living your life for God and being an inspiration to so many!
James M. Stevens
Senior Music and Culture Advisor
Dr. James Michael Stevens is a prolific musician and published composer of over 200 songs. Winner of numerous ASCAP Standard Awards for Composition, he has formally served as President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Chapter of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), and currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee as Chairman of the Music Department at Free Will Baptist Bible College.